Zelich case closes after Walworth County judge gives him 10 years in prison for hiding bodies

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Jonah Beleckis
Saturday, October 14, 2017

ELKHORN—Sometimes when Niki Carlson is running errands, she sees a petite blond woman with her hair worn up, pushing a stroller with her children.

This sight reminds her of her sister, Laura Simonson.

“And everything comes flooding back,” Carlson said, “the heartache of losing my sister, the longing to hear her voice just one more time and being able to tell her how much I love her.”

Carlson said Friday in Walworth County Court that she can let go of that heartache and celebrate her sister's life now that Steven Zelich, a former West Allis police officer who killed Simonson and another woman and dumped their bodies in the town of Geneva, has been sentenced for the final time in connection with the killings.

In June 2014, police found two suitcases dumped in the town of Geneva that contained the bodies of Simonson and Jenny Gamez. Zelich killed the women during separate sexual encounters months or years before.

Judge Kristine Drettwan sentenced Zelich, 55, to the maximum prison term of 10 years for two counts of hiding a corpse. Zelich also received 10 years of extended supervision.

That sentence is on top of the combined 60 years in prison he is already serving for the two killings—35 years from Kenosha County Court for Gamez's 2012 death and 25 years from Olmsted County Court in Minnesota for Simonson's 2014 death.

The bodies were found in “horrible” condition, District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld said. But he added it was important for the court to know the disturbing conditions of the badly decayed bodies. Neither woman was identifiable by looking at her face. The suitcases were crowded with flies.

He said the gruesome details were relevant because the Walworth County charges Zelich faced had to do with how he treated the dead bodies.

“What it is about is dignity and respect that people deserve to be shown after their death,” Wiedenfeld said. “He treated their bodies like garbage.”

Wiedenfeld said Zelich's actions took away the chance for closure for the families, who were denied a chance to grieve, mourn and have a funeral with an open casket.

The case against Zelich opened when police found the bodies in June 2014, but police believe Gamez, 19, of Cottage Grove, Oregon, died in August 2012, according to court documents. Zelich and Gamez met online in 2012 and then in person in Kenosha, where she died.

Zelich's DNA was found on the ropes used to tie her hands.

Gamez's mother, Joyce Gunsolus, gave a statement to the court over the phone. She said her daughter was “the love of my life. She was funny, smart. She always made us laugh.”

She said they don't know what she was looking for when she met up with Zelich.

They won't ever know.

“He played God with her life,” Gunsolus said.

Simonson, 37, of Farmington, Minnesota, was a mother of seven, Carlson said. The youngest was only 5 years old when Simonson died.

Even if her youngest was too young to remember, Carlson said Simonson's family will remember the movie nights where everyone would circle around Simonson with their pillows, blankets and popcorn.

Friday's sentencing marks the end of charges Zelich faced for the killings.

Once police found him, Zelich took responsibility for his actions, which he has said were accidental, Zelich's attorney Jonathan Smith said.

Zelich gave a complete statement to police and assisted in identifying the bodies, Smith said. Zelich has been a model inmate in the 1,207 days he's been in confinement, he added.

Zelich pleaded guilty to the charges to spare the families from going through a graphic, public jury trial, Smith said.

Zelich chose not to speak Friday because he thought it would be disrespectful to the victim's families, his lawyer said.

“(He) is a human being,” Smith said. “He is not without redemptive qualities.”

Carlson repeatedly referred to Zelich as a monster during her statement to the court.

“He is a predator, a destroyer of families and a pathetic human being,” she said.

Carlson said Friday—nearly four years after her sister was killed—the closure will allow her to move on.

“But today is my day—a day I can stop thinking about this monster and what he did to my little sister,” Carlson said. “I will celebrate Laura and Jenny's lives. I will honor them and remember the good things they did with the short time here on Earth.

“After today, I will not spend one more moment spending any of my precious time thinking about this monster.”

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